It was 14 years ago here at Valhalla, a patch of rolling golf land in horse country, that Tiger Woods produced one of the most spectacular victories in his extraordinary career, beating Bob May in a spellbinding Sunday shootout to win the PGA Championship in extra holes.
It was the third and most dramatic leg in what would become the Tiger Slam and Woods seemed to fly as close to the sun as any golfer ever.
Now 14 years later, it’s Rory McIlroy who is soaring.
As the PGA Championship begins Thursday, it feels as if professional golf is passing through an intersection, moving from one era and into another.
Woods isn’t finished but he’s a brittle 38-year-old whose best years are likely behind him, while McIlroy is the game’s ascendant star, the only player since Woods capable of mesmerizing us.
He’s not Woods and admittedly doesn’t imagine himself winning major championships in such copious quantities as Tiger, but McIlroy plays the game with a similar paint-the-sky style.
Like Tiger, McIlroy makes you stop and watch. There is a magnetism to how he plays, how he walks and, refreshingly, how he talks.
When McIlroy won the Open Championship nearly three weeks ago, he became the third-youngest player to capture the first three legs of the Grand Slam and he reminded us of how good he can be.
“It looks like he has an extra gear compared to everyone else in the world,” European Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley said.
Last weekend, McIlroy chased down Sergio Garcia in a World Golf Championship at Firestone in Akron, Ohio, meaning he’s beaten virtually all the best players in the world in consecutive starts. If he can make it three in a row at Valhalla, it would cap a legendary run. Regardless, it’s Rory’s world now.
“I said at the start of the year that golf was looking for someone to put their hand up and sort of become one of the dominant players in the game,” he said. “I felt like I had the ability to do that and it’s just nice to be able to win a few tournaments and get back to where I feel I should be
“So I’m not necessarily sure you can call that an era or the start of an era, but I’m just really happy with where my golf game is at the minute and I just want to try and continue that for as long as possible.”
While McIlroy was stopping to sign autographs for fans shrieking for his attention around Valhalla’s practice green late Wednesday morning, camera crews were on stakeout in the nearby players’ parking lot, eyeing an empty space with Woods’ name on it.
The payoff came in early afternoon when Tiger arrived for a 2 p.m. practice round and, presumably, his Thursday morning tee time with Phil Mickelson and Padraig Harrington. Woods’ arrival drew breaking news coverage in all the places news happens these days because, balky back and all, he’s still Tiger.
He drew loud applause when he arrived at the practice tee and again when he launched his first practice shot. A hillside overlooking Valhalla’s first hole was jammed with thousands of spectators an hour before Woods began his practice round with Davis Love III and Steve Stricker.
“The game still does need him. He’s a big draw,” Rickie Fowler said. “I know he’s not going to be around forever but with Rory and (me) playing well right now and Sergio being in the mix and Martin (Kaymer) winning the U.S. Open, there’s a lot of young guys showing their face and some people are starting to notice us more. Maybe we’ll be able to hold down the court once Tiger is ready to go.
“But he’s still young. He’s not going anywhere.”
When Woods has played this year, he’s been erratic, sometimes wildly so. He can’t trust his driver, his short game has been dull and, for a couple of years now, the putts he once holed routinely often miss. The nine holes he played Wednesday were a cautious test drive to see if he’s physically up to playing this weekend.
Woods won five times last year before his back issue surfaced late in the season. The imposing aura he once exuded has faded. If he could get into serious contention on Sunday at a major – that’s not likely this week – it will be interesting to see how he handles it and how those around him handle it.
First, though, Woods has to regain what’s been lost. In the meantime, the game – and particularly McIlroy – have moved on.